A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Aldous Huxley is one of those names that routinely appears on Best Books Ever or Novels to Read Before You’re 30 etc. etc., and I always skim past him with only the vaguest idea of his writing or his life. I knew the names of a few, but the only one I could even begin to describe would be Brave New World, and that description would probably begin and end with the word ‘dystopia’. So I had put Huxley down as a sci-fi writer, and duly walked by on the other side of the street.
So when I approached Crome Yellow (1921) – which I knew how to spell, but still felt metallic and futuristic in my mind – I was expecting robots and UFOs and the like. What I got instead, and what was far more welcome to my tastes, was a country house in the 1920s. What’s more, it’s a comic satire of various types of the 1920s.
Denis is our hero, and he heads off to visit Crome. He is a bit out of his depth, confused by a fluting hostess (who is heavily into spiritualism, at least while it is fashionable) and beguiled by the beautiful Anne, who seems only vaguely aware that he exists. He is also, alas, a poet – and it’s never quite clear whether we are supposed to think him a good one or not, even when his poetry is quoted. The house party do typical house party activities – they eat meals, they talk about philosophy, they even put on some sort of village fair – but the swirl and bustle of the novel is not action but dialogue and character. The types are drawn so adroitly that I feel they must be spoofs of particular people – but they work equally well as 1920s figures writ large. And I found it very funny – particularly when characters became unduly dogmatic about their chosen enthusiasms:
Gombauld grew lyrical. Everybody ought to have children – Anne ought to have them, Mary ought to have them – dozens and dozens. He emphasised his point by thumping with his walking-stick on the bull’s leather flanks. Mr Scogan ought to pass on his intelligence to little Scogans, and Denis to little Denises. The bull turned his head to see what was happening, regarded the drumming stick for several seconds, then turned back again satisfied, it seemed, that nothing was happening. Sterility was odious, unnatural, a sin against life. Life, life, and still more life. The ribs of the placid bull resounded.
If you are sensing similarities with Stella Gibbons’ Mr Mybug, who would follow some time later in Cold Comfort Farm, then you are on the same page as me. Although Huxley does lampoon with the same vigour of Gibbons, there is certainly a sense that nothing is to be taken particularly seriously in Crome Yellow, including Denis’s seeming heartache at the inattention of Anne (and alarm and the possible attentions of forthright Mary, who offers a rather less attractive option). The writing is witty and dry, and occasionally quietly savage, and – although Huxley would doubtless not thank me for it – just the sort of middlebrow treat I love. And, indeed, Crome Yellow is one of those novels which tests and questions any idea of an impermeable line between the highbrow and middlebrow.
The one aspect of Crome Yellow that baffled me – was it bad writing or a clever technique? – was Huxley’s propensity to include enormously long excerpts and passages. We are treated to the text of a sermon, for instance, and an excerpt from the history of Crome that the owner, Mr Wimbush, is writing. These go on for pages and pages, interrupting the narrative without providing much in and of themselves. Is this intended to perform some clever literary patchwork? Hard to say. I certainly don’t know.
But, that confusion aside, I greatly enjoyed Crome Yellow. It’s exactly the opposite of what I was expecting, and that’s why I’m grateful to Shelf of Shame week for making me finally read a Huxley novel.
Simon blogs at Stuck-in-a-Book. His copy of Crome Yellow was published 1962, but there have been plenty of editions since…